Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Let the Right One In

I first watched Let the Right One In (2008) several years ago and admired it greatly, but since then, even after acquiring the DVD, I've been hesitant to watch it again and unable to say why. Seeing it again for this review, I now know: this is a depressing motion picture. It's strongly acted (bravely so by its two leads), beautifully photographed, quite shocking at times, and surprisingly tender and intimate, but it is a major downer, filled with wounded characters, desolate environments, and feelings of fear, loneliness, and claustrophobia. There's tremendous filmmaking skill and moments of poignancy, but the movie leaves me feeling down, not invigorated.

Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a lonely twelve-year-old living in Sweden. Alienated by his divorced parents and bulled by thugs at school, he harbors a fascination with death, violence, and crime. Eli (Lina Leandersson), is a twelve-year-old girl who, in her own words, has been twelve years old for a long time; she's a vampire, one is forced to murder people to feed or have her adult helper Hakan (Per Ragner), who poses as her father, kill people and drain their blood to bring to her. When Eli moves in next door to Oskar, these two gradually develop a friendship that becomes a deep connection in an otherwise cold, barren world.

When I say this movie is cold, I don't mean it's detached and cruelly logical like a Stanley Kubrick movie; I mean cold in a literal sense. The narrative takes place during the cold, dark winter months of Sweden. Characters bundle up in thick wool, snow crumpling beneath their boots and mist appearing on their breaths. The film is also mostly devoid of color; save for a Rubik's Cube and the blood, this world is a stark, at times grimy palette of white, black, and grey. Watching Let the Right One In makes me want to curl up in a warm blanket with some hot chocolate while I lament the frigid harshness of the world.

But nature is not the only cold thing in this movie. The constant misery Oskar endures from the bullies borders on sociopathic: whips from a cane, his clothing stuffed in a urinal, being called a pig, threats with a knife, having his head dunked under water, etc. It might seem excessive, but compared to some of the stuff that's actually happened in real life, it's entirely plausible and perhaps understated. The adults, meanwhile, are blithely unaware of the torment Oskar puts up with, either clueless like the teachers or absorbed in themselves. No wonder Oskar feels alone. The first time we see him - a pale, scrawny thing - he's a misshapen, distorted reflection in a window. The film's grammar continually reveals him to be a small, isolated figure.

Oskar's not the only lonely creature. Vampires, in other literature and films, are usually solitary creatures, perennial outsiders who exist beyond the comforts of normal society. They can live hundreds if not thousands of years and only watch as remnants of their former human lives fade away. Sure, there are plenty of villainous vampires who relish their bloodlust and power, but Eli comes from the stock that doesn't enjoy committing murder to survive. Hers is a sad, desperate way of surviving, and that's why, I think, she prefers having her Renfield get her blood, that way she doesn't have to confront the reality of what she must do. If Oskar is typically filmed alone, Eli is filmed as an outsider, the one looking in through windows or perched above, the eternal observer and sometimes a predator on the hunt.

One of the strengths of Let the Right One In is that it takes its time. It's not a flashy, action piece like Blade, a gothic melodrama like Dracula, or even a teen romance like Twilight. The relationship between Oskar and Eli ripens bit by bit over the movie's nearly two-hour running length. At first, they're curious about each other, but Eli doesn't want to be friends, owing to the nature of her existence. Then, they start to bond over little things, like when Oskar shows her the Rubik's Cube. By the end, they've grown extremely close and come to protect on each other. Not only does the movie take vampires seriously, it takes its characters seriously.

There are moments that aren't for the squeamish, although they are artfully done. Blood flows readily, but the worst of it occurs just off-screen or is implied. In one case, a door closes at just the right time as Eli makes an attack; a bloody hand bursting through the door tells us all we need to know about how brutal it was. Director Tomas Alfredson also elects shoot a couple of the attacks in static long shots, showing Eli claiming a victim underneath a bridge or overpass; the technique effectively demonstrates how vulnerable her victims are and again doesn't show us too much violence.

If there's a flaw, it's a subplot involving a neighbor (Peter Carlberg) tracking down Eli after she's killed some of his friends, one of whom tried to help Eli when she pretended to be hurt. On one hand, I appreciate the effort to depict these neighbors as well drawn characters who feel real and show grief over the death of friends. It would have been easy to make them unsympathetic, even deserving targets to foster more sympathy for Eli, but these scenes take up a lot of time and ultimately seem to exist outside the relationship between Eli and Oskar, which is the heart of the movie and where our interest lies.

Let the Right One In is a cold, dark, and sad picture, and those are the traits that make it exemplary. There's a lot to like and admire about it, but when all's said and done, you won't enjoy the rest of your day after seeing it.

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